It’s time to enter communities with questions instead of answers

Happy New Year from The 53rd Week!

For 2016, The 53rd Week welcomes blogger Jasmine Waslowski, a graduate of McMaster University and a young professional with an interest in asking hard questions about volunteering abroad.



Two years ago, I was wrapping up an experience that could be considered my first foray into “voluntourism”. I don’t typically label this experience in that way, because it was a little different than the stereotypical one to two week trip building schools or helping in a low-resource clinic. After all, I spent three months in Malawi, and I was there primarily to learn, not to help. With a group of peers from the Global Health Specialization at McMaster University, I observed and supported the work of Ungweru Organisation – a small grassroots NGO in the outskirts of Mzuzu, Malawi. Though the experience may not fit the classic definition of “voluntourism” or “short term service visit abroad”, many of the same principles apply.

One of my most significant learnings from this experience has been underscored numerous times by subsequent community ventures. The message seems so simple and obvious, yet the global community struggles to approach foreign aid and development in this way. What is it? Local community members need to be directly involved in projects that impact them. That’s it.

There are numerous people like me out there – people who care about people elsewhere in the world, people who wish to reduce suffering and make life better for those who do not have the resources to do so themselves. From my perspective, this desire to help others should be nurtured and encouraged. However, we quickly run into challenges when entering a community as an outsider and making decisions about what is best for them.

Let’s return to my experience in Mzuzu. When I first began working at Ungweru, the organisation was in the middle of a ‘Nutritional Assessment’ project, which involved visiting Community-Based Childcare Centres (CBCCs) and monitoring the weights and heights of the children. It was great fun! We went to several CBCCs, occasionally bringing balloons or something else to entertain them as we interrupted the class to plop every kid on a scale and write down some numbers on a page. Sometimes the child would squirm and wriggle, so we just made our best guess and moved along. After a couple of these, I began to wonder what we were doing with the information. From my perspective, data collection is useless unless there is some sort of follow-up or analysis. Upon inquiring, however, it appeared as though nobody was quite sure of the purpose for this project.

Thus, keen young Jasmine decided to do some research and make an effort to transform the work into something meaningful and productive. I read documents on child nutrition and tried to understand why we were using certain indicators. I learned how to manipulate and analyze the numbers to determine if a child was malnourished or at risk. I researched ways to improve the nutritional status for children who were severely malnourished. I even created and laminated a printout, translated in the local language, which would be provided to each CBCC to help caregivers recognize the signs of malnutrition among the children. When it was time for me to travel back home, I provided my local colleagues with everything I’d done so that they could continue with follow-up. Even as I was doing this, I knew that it would likely not be followed up on. So why did I do it?

Why didn’t I take a more critical look at what was going on? When I asked how this project started, did I take the time to ask if was worth continuing? I was afraid to admit that we may have been wasting our time. I wanted to feel as though my skills were being put to good use. I felt embarrassed to continue observing local work without contributing something of my own. When I look back at the experience now, however, one thing is very obvious: despite all of my efforts to make this project worthwhile, it did not contribute to anything but my own education. 

Though child nutrition may have been a relevant issue in that area, our particular approach to assessment was not really within the capacity or expertise of the organisation I was working with. Thinking now, there are so many questions that could have been asked to the community before continuing with such a project – questions that would lead to a more productive response. Was child nutrition a priority? If no, what are the community priorities? If yes, how would they suggest addressing it? What methods have been tried in the past? What resources are available to help? Would people like to learn more about this issue? How?

By involving community members in every step of development (issue identification, solution generation, project implementation), we are more likely to undertake something that local people consider important, and do so in a sustainable way. It is true that foreigners may have a lot to offer and a lot to gain in developing communities, but the process of mutual benefit relies on trusting and sustainable community partnerships.

So, for all of my globally-minded, kind-hearted, action-oriented peers, there is hope for us yet! If we continually reflect on our roles within the community, make the necessary preparations, and focus on relationship-building, we can ensure mutual benefit in abroad service-learning trips. Stay tuned to my future blog posts as I explore these topics in greater depth. Ask questions, learn with me, challenge me, and teach me – everyone is welcome! 


(c) 2016 Jasmine Waslowski and The 53rd Week

Leave a Comment